The Hermit, Prologue and Chapter One
I GREW UP HEARING STORIES ABOUT HIM. Freak, cannibal boy, creep, scrat, and a dozen other names, some creative and some less inspired. When I met him, billions of miles from where his story began, everyone was calling him one thing- the Hermit. Only a few knew him, truly, and I’d like to think by the end of his story I could be counted among those few individuals. At the end of it all, his name, the first words he spoke to another person, would never forgotten.
My prejudice towards him came into being like most do; I learned it from others. I knew all his peculiarities that, over time, had become inflated half truths and lies. Kids told ghost stories about him coming into your room at night to watch you sleep while eating bugs and rats. Kids would huddle around campfires or bedrooms during sleepovers, sharing these sorts of stories that expanded upon the myth of Scout. Our childhood games revolved around him. He was the monster who chased you in a game of tag or hide ’n’ seek. I played these and many others growing up on Isla Cielo, running on the beach pretending to be him, laughing in playful fright at the thought of him catching one of us. Scout’s pitiable origins never crossed our minds.We took him as an aberration, a boogeyman, someone deserving of our sympathy not our cruelty; a child, found alone and on the brink of death in the wasteland, fortunate to be alive.
Kids thought he was a monster. To parents, he was a constant reminder of their failures in the aftermath of the End. He stood out on an island of filled with intellectuals, academics, prodigies, and creatives. Even the strays,the “non-essential” people saved by the EHSE evacuation, were nothing like him. All of them, no matter their background and role in the program, from soldiers to physicists, saw him as an outsider. There was a time when he would have been a charitable cause to them. They’d put some dollars in his pocket, pat themselves on their backs, and say they saved a life. Instead, they viewed him with indifference, caution, and even slight disdain. He was an effigy for their fears and frustrations.
The adults knew it was wrong to treat him so. Not too long ago it would have been unacceptable, horrendous even, to make a child into a pariah. An orphan found in the wilderness, alive despite the odds, he would have been a star. Actors would have taken photos with him. There would’ve been book deals and talks about a movie adaptation. His face, contemplative and bookish, would have been plastered on billboards, televisions, and magazines. That’s what civilization would have done. And while EHSE was the last of civilization, the people there knew they had lost their decency to paranoia and fear, those ancient roots of our ill habits.
The fear that he was dangerous was more than just him potentially lashing out violently at his peers. No one would ever admit it, but what terrified everyone, children and adults, was the possibility that was was one of the unspeakablehorrors responsible for the End. How could a boy so young survive unless he was something unnatural and inhuman? Despite Scout’s behavior being in line with those who experience this level of trauma, his unusual quirks were scrutinized to the point that even more rational minds believed this was a plausible deduction considering everything that happened. Bringing him to the island they could have potentially risked everything they slaved away to create. All the work and risk undone by Scout, the monsters’ Trojan horse. So they often considered exiling him from the island, deliberating each time he didn’t fit into their box of normalcy. What was one person in the scope of all human life? Was he worth it? Was this child worth sacrificing EHSE?
The truth is he had his eccentricities. There’s no doubt he was cut from a wholly different cloth than the rest of us. He had a tendency to walk slow, regardless of his limp, and always towards something unseen, looking for the next sliver of shelter to sink into. You could find him in the corner of a room or tucked halfway behind a tree, watching everything intently with big inquisitive eyes. If you met his gaze he’d shift around uncomfortably, trying to mesh further into the scenery or escape altogether. He’d sleepwalk and end up scratching at people’s doors, whining like a dog to come in. Sometimes they’d find him tucked inside garbage cans asleep, a dead bird clutched in his teeth. It was much worse when he was young, so I’ve been told, but these things happened up until he left.
I was there, in the crowd, the day the Unyielding exploded over the Atlantic and the Indomitablewent silent after a series of catastrophic readings. In one day EHSE, the last shred of civilization, lost its two most promising pilots. In the midst of these cataclysmic losses the least likely person took a stand when everyone else balked. Scout had no dog in our fight. He had been an outcast, treated less than human at times, but despite it all he boarded the Defiant and became more than silly nicknames and the embodiment of our powerlessness. On that day he became a hero.
His actions weren’t done out of love for us. Scout didn’t care about humanity and what we’d lose should the mission fail and EHSE collapse. Scout did it for her, Brena Sahni, the woman he loved, and the handful of souls that cared for him. People like Doc Aaren, who died a month after the Fortuna’s launch, and his adoptive father, Lucca Serrano, who took him under his wing and gave him a loving home. The few that never gave up on him were there that day,to see him rise above the masses and take hold of the future when no one else would, forcing everyone on Isla Cielo to reevaluate their misconceptions of him. The pariah had become a hero. As he speared onward to his destination stories began to spread. The narrative changed. Even those with grounded sensibilities were not immune to being swept up in telling tall tales about him. It went on this way up to the launching of the Fortuna and afterwards. Scout became more than a legend. He became mythic.
That’s a lot of power to wield and some people realized this. EHSE’s scholars knew his life was significant to future generations in establishing humanity’s new history and should be carefully analyzed. Others worried what sort of society would manifest from it, this new iconic figure on a world far from the dead ones from Earth. These individuals could not reconcile their past prejudices from this new mythic version. To them, he was an uncertain figure to idolize.Yet in knowingthere was no escape fromhis influence across EHSE, his legacy would have to be monitored and filtered to protect it, even if that meant protecting it from Scout himself.
-My Time with the Hermit, The Memoir of Eisley Coda
SCOUT OPENED HIS EYES TO A SUN A BILLION MILES FROM THE ONE HE WAS BORN UNDER. His head throbbed while a viscous trickle of blood pooled around his cheeks. He took a breath and groaned. Dust puffed up from the hard sandstone. Across from him was a shallow pond and at its center the hunk of metal responsible for his journey here- a Russian-made quadruped drone.
He rolled over, rubbing his bearded chin staining his fingers with fresh blood. Above him was a short cliff of aroundfifteen feet. Scout squinted trying to recall what happened.
When the haze of his blackout adequately left him, Scout sat up. His back popped and stiffened for a moment. He was getting too old for this sort of thing. How much longer did have left in the tank? It was hard to tell. He wasn’t a young man anymore, but despite the familiar crook in his back and the other normal impairments of age, Scout was still robust. His mind, however, hadn’t fared nearly as well.
“Do you remember how?”
“Stop.” Scout said. He knew the game his mind wanted to play and decided he wasn’t participating. His head hurt and he wasn’t in the mood.He grunted and winced. It hadn’t even been a minute since returning to consciousness and already his chatty mind was toying with him. Time was making it increasingly difficult to keep that part of himself quiet.
He glanced again at the horseshoe shaped cliff edge. What could have taken his attention so he would have missed such an obvious terrain feature? Even a child could have descended it with little issue.
“You really don’t remember?”
The pond next to him was like the thousands of others scattered around the region, shallow fresh water, the remains of an ancient ocean that dried up with shifting of the planet’s geology, replenished by the healthy amount of rainfall the region recieved. Under its surface moved a solitary organism, a primordial native, ovoid and covered in a bony shell. Under its domed blue-grey body were feathery cilia used to sift in bits of algae. It was the last one left. The rest like it would be buried under the mud, hibernating, waiting for the rains to replenish the pond’s water supply and bring down nutrients for the algae to thrive on.
Scout pushed the question to the back and took out his first aid kit from his rucksack. He dragged himself over to the pond, cupped some water in his hands, then washed it over his head wound. After applying some ointment and wrapping his head with a bandage, Scout got to his knees and finally stood up.
The hunk of metal in the pond had been his Laikadrone, an exploratory robot he used for gathering materials and data about the planet. Two of its legs were shorn off and the third mangled. Sparks sputtered up from dents in its hull. It hummed and buzzed, trying to reorient its drives.
A meteor shower two nights before had damaged the Laika.Scout tracked down the crater where the meteorite nearly struck the drone and the scant bits of debris left. The force of the impact managed to throw the Laika one hundred and forty three meters away where it came down into the pond.
It would take a weeks worth of work but he’d get her running again. He’d have to come back with AT-PS and haul it back. In the meantime he’d pull the hard drive. The data stored within was far more valuable than the drone itself. He couldn’t risk leaving it behind, left to the elements. The planet was an adolescent and like one, apt to throw fits. Nothing Scout hadn’t been able to survive thus far, but this wilderness was no different than those back home. Complacency was fatal.
Scout ran his hand over the drone.
“It’ll be okay.”
“You care about her don’t you?”
“No. Her. You know that.”
The possibility of losing the Laika made him sick to his stomach. Not because of its usefulness, but because it gave him a strange sort of companionship, one more healthy than the relationship with his conscience; that other voice. Aside from his inner dialogue and drone, he had no one else. The Laika offered a considerable deal of relief for his loneliness. Together they were both alien invaders, one man and one machine, mapping and learning about their new conquered home. The fantasy of it, like something from the books he loved, distanced him from the reality.
The damage it sustained made removing the hard drive a chore, but not impossible. With some grit and resolve he pulled it from the wreck.
“Don’t worry girl, I’ll be back,” he said to the drone, running his hand over it.
“Don’t leave me,” the drone answered back in his head. Scout winced again. He remembered a house. A puddle outside and laying in it, like the Laika but under a different sun. Long ago. Scout wadded out of the pool. Stared up at the cliff. What had he seen there? What caused the fall? What treacherous memory had risen up to pester him once more?
“The house. The cream house. That what I saw, isn’t it?”
Scout looked at the water around his ankles and remembered the spectral sight of the house, that faraway prison his mother and father called home, and the puddle that saved him from dehydration.
“Do you remember now? You’re mind is getting slower old man. How much longer until it’s gone?”
“Not soon enough. I just hope you go before my memories do.”
“When I go, so do you.”
“I keep seeing the house. Why?”
“Someone is trying to tell you something.”
“Yourself. I imagine.”
“So why did I fall? Was it seeing the house? Come on, think man, think.”
“It wasn’t the house. You saw them. Didn’t you?”
“You’re lying. You saw them, in the window, waving. Two skeletons waving to their baby boy.”
“No that can’t be. I’ve never seen them. I never see their faces. Just smells. Shapes. Their voices saying my name.”
“You didn’t see their faces. They were gone. Rotted away. But you saw them, not their shadows, and then you fell.”
“It’s only a matter of time for you to lose your grip on everything. Reality.”
“I’ve lived a good chunk of my life not certain what the hell was real and what wasn’t. What’s the difference? And you’ve said this before, on the Defiant, and I’ve made it this far.”
“But next time what if the fall is ten feet higher? You might have been unsure about what’s real and what isn’t, but you could keep yourself alive. And now...well, you’re becoming clumsy.”
“Now nothing. I’m fine. Go away.”
“Enough,” Scout said, suppressing the other voice back down.
A surge of cold air washed over him. He shivered and looked to the horizon. A storm was descending from the continental mesa. Its mountainous charcoal clouds obscured the entire northwestern sky and flashed with blue lightning. In a couple of minutes it would be upon him, battering Scout with wind, hail, and sharp flecks of sediment from the mesa’s vast upper plains. He had to leave, quick. Scout went back to the drone and pulled out a length of solid steel piping.
“Sorry girl, I’m gonna need this.”
“Don’t leave me here.”
“You’ll be okay. The storm won’t hurt you,” he said reassuringly to the drone.
Of course the drone understood none of this. It didn’t care about Scout or the storm. It was a piece of machinery. Scout took a second to remind himself of this. He limped out of the nearly dried up riverbed and made a heading east, towards his camp with the storm fast on his heels.
The ground trembled as the tempest tumbled down the side of the colossal mesa. The cold wind became more aggressive, pushing Scout forward. It wouldn’t be enough. The storm, a common one he called a mesablast, was produced in the high elevations of the planet’s continent-sized mesa landforms. This mesa was mapped and measured to have the surface area half the size of Greenland. The icy air would eventually be pushed down by the powerful winds on the mesa’s peaks and dropped into the land and oceans below.
Scout pushed through his exhaustion and pain fleeing across the swooping sandstone landscape, passing natural rock arches, outcrops, stacks, buttes, and rivers. Despite its superficial desert appearance there was an abundance of water. The planet had a healthy lattice of rivers, ponds, and oceans. He traversed a shallow creek before looking back to the storm.
The mesablast would be on him in minutes, ten at the most. Scout stopped. He wasn’t going to make it. The camp was still too far, but Scout hadn’t survived this long without having a backup plan.
Scout nodded at the thought, turned around, and ran towards the storm. He didn’t have to go far, but the wind was so strong it made moving forward a grueling chore. It howled demonically, as if trying to scare him back on course. Scout took the goggles hanging from his neck and covered his eyes from the biting sand, but it was already becoming difficult to see a few yards ahead. Fortunately, he found what he was searching for before it was too late, a small crevasse in the crook of a thirty foot tall arch.
Somewhat shielded from the elements, Scout took the thermal poncho in his ruck. He tucked himself between the ruck and a boulder, covering himself with the poncho and keeping the hollow metal piping close to his chest. As predicted, the first brunt of the storm was on him in a matter of minutes. The atmosphere flashed with heat, followed by three consecutive lightning strikes. Another came down. Five more. Soon there were so many Scout couldn’t keep track. The poncho jerked around, threatening to fly off into the madness of the storm. Scout shut his eyes and waited.
A LAYER OF SAND AND DEBRIS COVERED THE LAND. Up from a mound of it piled around the base of the arch jutted a length of black metal piping, pulled from the Laika, siphoning air down into the soil. The sand shifted, cascading down from the poncho as Scout emerged, battered but alive. He brushed himself off and packed away his poncho and the piping.
It was night now. It lasted sixteen hours on this planet- EPD-333.565. Sixteen hours of night. Sixteen hours of daylight. The storm lasted about eight hours. His body was cramped, but at least he could take little solace in the cool evening air. Parched, he opened a canteen and drank its lukewarm contents. Around him were tubes of fulgurite, marking the spots where the lightning had impacted. There were hundreds of them. He gathered a few and put them into the ruck. When he was done, Scout continued his journey home.
A streak of golden light cut the sky like a cosmic rainbow while the twin moons of EPD-333.565 floated in orbit, one small and misshapen, the other a reddish sphere of oxidized iron sand and rock. Scout thought of Brena. Despite the planet’s many hazards, ones like the mesablasts, it could be a real home one day. She had been right in her choice. Scout knew it within the first year, and since he started transmitting his discoveries on EPD-333.565 the colonists on the Fortuna knew it as well. This was her victory. Those were her stars. It should have been her, but Scout was content caring for her legacy. Still, he wished she could have seen it. A stream sang its bubbling song as he walked by.
“She would have loved this.”
“You say that all the time.”
“Because it’s true.”
“You’ve almost died here several times.”
“It was no different on Earth. I doubt there’s any place out there that doesn’t want you dead. At least some places are agreeable. Like this one. She really would have loved it.”
“You’ll never know.”
“No. I know.”
The heavens were impossible to scale. The dome of the sky seemed to reach into the infinite, filled with all manner of new constellations thirsting to be named. Scout had already begun mapping them for navigation, identifying new stars or seeing old ones from a new angle. It was almost impossible to believe he had nearly given himself to its darkness, and instead she had taken herself as the surrogatesacrifice. She was out there, bones like his parents.
His time on the Defiant seemed a dream, one that had lasted nearly a century and was marked by points of nothingness during his time in stasis. It was another life, a distant recollection kept in his mind’s vaults, like Isla Cielo and the time before. Now the Defiant was an old machine, and this was the last stretch of his life. There would be nothing after this. He was fine with that. There were no predators trying to make a meal of him or people judging him, threatening to cast him out. Despite his loneliness, Scout had found some quiet peace in his solitude. Life was monastic, focused on various tasks like they were spiritual ritual. Always done for her. He would have stopped long ago otherwise. He was alone, but he was alive, and for him that was enough.
Scout crested the hills overlooking his camp. The Defiant was nowhere to be found. It was elsewhere and he visited rarely. Mostly to sleep the years away, but sometimes for personal reasons. The camp, however, had nearly everything he required to sustain himself. He passed rows of corn, beans, potatoes, and other plants, including those native to EPD-333.565, half kept in a greenhouse he had assembled and the other half outside. Normally the plants from Earth would have been killed by the storm, but after years of experimenting, he had managed to find a way to strengthen their resistance by hybridizing them with the native flora. Like the alien flora, his hybrid crops had endured the mesablast.
He pressed his hand onto a panel next to one of his habitat’s entryway. The door slid open. Inside were tables with scraps of electronics and parts. It stunk of chemicals and metal. Scout plugged in the Laika’s recovered hard drive and uploaded the information. Next to it was a monitor connected to his antenna array outside.
The data would be uploaded to the Defiant’s detached artificial gravity ring left in low orbit. Combined with the probe that led him to EPD-333.565 it served as a satellite and telescope, relaying his gathered information to the rest of EHSE aboard the Fortuna and sister pioneer vessels. He masked the signature of the signal to make it appear as if the sent data was coming from Brena and theIndomitable. He didn’t want them to know the truth. Whey they came, Scout preferred they seek out her ghost rather than him. After all this was her world, not his.
Scout sat down and made a list of the tools and parts he’d need to repair the Laika drone. He’d go hours before morning, making use of the extra hours of night to avoid the sun. The AT-PS, nicknamed the Beagle, would need to tow a trailer. He wrote that down. He wrote things down more than before, but this was something he didn’t notice.
The monitor beeped. Scout rolled his chair over and found a live message broadcast coming from the ring satellite. It meant one thing. His stomach twisted into a knot. His finger froze over the play button. After all this time, all the years of surviving in total isolation with just his mind, it was happening. Or was it another illusion? Was he falling apart again as he had in the Defiant?
“No. Not yet. Not now.”
“Time’s up Scout.”
“Shut up!” he screamed. He rubbed his furrowed brow.
“At least listen to it. To be sure.”
“We both know who it is. It was just a matter of when.”
“Play the feed.”
Scout offered a defeated sigh and pressed play.
“Indomitable, this is the Fortuna. Are you receiving? We are approaching EPD-333.565. Are you receiving us? Lieutenant Brena Sahni are you receiving us? This is the Fortuna. Are you alive? We have your suggested landing sites. Please respond and confirm the intel. Lieutenant Brena Sahni, this is the Fortuna. Are you receiving our signal?”
Scout turned to a trashcan nearby and vomited. The room swayed as he pressed his head into the palms of his hands.
“SIXTEEN DAYS,” HE WHISPERED. He read over the estimated time as it counted down the minutes. Sixteen days. Three hours. Fourteen minutes. The countdown for a new beginning and another end. It was all a cycle, like the Church Man said. A wheel, like the ring above, carrying this message of doom from the Fortuna. Aptly named. How did the Church Man know all of this? How had he been able to piece together the puzzles left for Scout to solve? A puzzle that spanned beyond even the Earth. It was inescapable.
“Or is it?”
“Are we on the same page?”
“We cannot stay. We knew this day was coming”
“Why aren’t you stopping me,” he asked his other voice. “You said ‘we’. Why do you want to run?”
“They’ll distract you. What use will you have of me?”
“Is that so bad? All you do is bring me down.”
“Or I’ll never stop. I’ll scream and scream so that you never stop listening to me. We’ll both go insane. Because with me, you can never be around them. And I think it’s more likely that will happen before you ever lose me to them, their attention and their presence. I don’t want either of these things. You can gamble with the options, but I already know what you’re going to do. You’ve been preparing for this.”
“So we’re on the same page?”
“Yes. Let’s get to it. We have a lot of work to do.”
Scout started ransacking his desk looking for the answers he kept in a blue journal. He found it under a stack of ore charts. The inside outlined his next steps. Inventory, breaking down the camp, the route to his new camp, and it’s location. Everything was meticulously noted in the journal including his plan to erase his presence. To the Fortuna Scout was dead, his final unmasked message sent one hundred and nine years ago. It also had to appear as if she was as well. He was resurrecting her, only to kill her again. At least this death, despite its dishonesty, made her a hero in their eyes.
One hundred and nine years, plus some months, weeks, and days. Added with the time from the journey to EPD-333.565, nearly another century, made him over two hundred years old. All that time cut off from the rest of humanity, waiting for the day when he’d have to run from them. For his sake, like the other voice said. Or he’d go insane. Maybe he could go back to normal, but normal wasn’t something he really ever knew. Scout was accustomed to this life, a life spent alone. More importantly he had to, in order to keep the illusion alive.
Scout went back for the Laika. The mesablast had kicked it around a bit, but it was otherwise unharmed. There were no tubes of fulgurite in sight, but had the drone been struck it would have been able to sustain it by releasing the voltage through a discharger and shielding the electronics through various protection systems. The energy in his arms were spent on the drive back after hauling the drone by himself onto the trailer.
“How much longer?”
“Another hundred years.”
“You think you can go that long with no one but me for company? You’re getting old. It’s unraveling. That’s why the memories are coming back. The threads are coming undone. What goes first? The body or the mind?”
There was no time to repair the Laika. He’d have to do it the moment things running at the new site. He moved east to west, storing equipment in containers and disassembling structures. Section by section he went, tearing down, packing, then relocating the camp. He traveled back and forth between the old site and the new, putting it together like a puzzle. This puzzle he understood. All the answers were in the blue journal, like the prescience of the Church Man and Scout wondered if he had a similar book that had all the answers within.
Scout hardly slept and when he did his dreams were portentous. When he’d lay his head on his arms Scout could hear the pulse of his heart and he thought of a clock, ticking, counting down the days. In his dreams he saw the wheel of fortune spiraling into the shape of the gravity rings around the Fortuna. It spun on and on until it crushed him under its weight. Each rotation another second lost. Seconds turned to minutes, minutes to hours. Sixteen days became a dozen. Soon there was less than a week’s time. This was his routine, work and unsettled sleep. Six days. Threedays. Two.
On the day before the arrival of the Fortuna, Scout sat outside his new campsite soldering one of the damaged boards from the Laika. It was the last time he would be the only man on EPD-333.565. What a terrible name, cold and mechanical. It needed a name. Brena had given one in the recordings he took from the Kometa-1. She called it Moonchild, a joke that only two people knew- Scout and Sori- but one that she felt was fitting.
“They should give it the name she wanted.”
“How would they know? You have her messages and you won’t give them up will you?”
“I don’t know. I...it’s all I have of her. Sori would know wouldn’t she? Brena would have told her. She’ll remember the joke. The name from the Neverending Story.”
“If she survived.”
Scout sighed, overlooking the valley below, it stretched on for miles, a landscape of swooping arches and lakes bordered by alien flora. Some of the shores around the lake glowed a faint green thanks to the bioluminescence of slime molds. The first pair of eyes to see it all and yet there was so much more left unexplored. In a few generations, there’d be nearly a million people on this empty world and all of them would be taught about the woman who found humanity’s second chance. Her name would be etched in stone monuments and stored in history books. Scholars would give lectures dedicated to her contributions until the person was gone and all that remained was the legacy. None of them would really know her and maybe they would never know that she wanted her prize world to take the name Moonchild,despite their scrupulous research. Until one day, in a time unfathomably distant, they excavate the Kometa-1’s drive while developing land for a restaurant or strip mall, and find her recordings stored within.
“I’ll give them back. When I’m ready. Before I die.”
“No one plans for when they’ll die. How will you know?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll get them back to the colonists so they know. Especially her family.”
“You won’t tell them the truth?”
“I can’t. It’ll destroy what she started, what she should have finished.”
“Tell yourself that.”
Scout set the board down and reached for a bundle of wires whose ends needed to be stripped and reattached. He closed and opened the stripper to loosen it up. The knuckles in his fist cracked with a sensation like flint grinding against steel, creating a hot friction. Scout dropped it then waved his hand around to relieve the pain. The other voice was right. He didn’t want it to be true, but time was starting to grow thin. Even with stretches of time in stasis, Scout didn’t have much longer. He figured he’d be happy with this, considering it all, but he wasn’t and he knew why.
“Part of you wants to see them again.”
“Is that wrong?”
“No. You’re only human.”
“Despite the way so many of them treated me?”
“Not the ones that mattered. Lucca. Thomas. Joseph. Doc Aaren and Sorensson.They cared, and you miss them. You don’t want to die without seeing them.”
“I’d just like to see them. See that they’re okay. That they made the trip safe and sound. That’s all I want.”
“Maybe, but they aren’t the only reasons. You still think she might be alive. You think she could have survived her ordeal and maybe been found by them.”
“It could happen.”
“Fuck the odds! We thought she was dead after the launch. For years I went on thinking it just like everyone else, but now, I’m the only one who knows the truth. She was alive.”
“You don’t even know if that’s true buddy. It could have been all in your head. Her. The messages. They could be nothing more than a hallucination. How long do you suppose a person can go without human contact? At what point does a mind that naturally craves companionship break under that kinda stress? Denying yourself that basic needand as a result causing lasting harm. What if she wasn’t real? You said it yourself, you’re the only one who knows the truth. That’s why you want to keep the hard drive. You don’t know what’s fantasy and what isn’t. Was she dead? Was she alive? Are the messages real? Or did you dream them up?”
“You’re wrong.I found the source, the Kometa.”
“You know, the Kometa could be just as imaginary. After all, you saw it in your dreams before you found it. The comet. Are you prescient now? You aren’t going to show anyone are you? Like the hard drives taken from it? No, of course not. Because, what if? What if you come up to those colonists, her family, with a wrench or a rock in hand thinking you’re handing them over the precious last moments of their daughter’s life. What if you show them the Kometa and all they see is an empty space? They’ll think you’re a loon. A babbling idiot. As they always have.”
“It was real. She’s still out there.”
“Bones. Like the ghosts of your mother and father.”
“Our mother and father.”
“Pfft, not mine. Mine fed me pills and tried to kill me when they killed themselves. They did this to you, to me.”
“Still. They’re our mother and father.”
“You don’t even know what they look like. They’re just visions of mummies. Shadows. They did this. They left us.”
“Yes. Us. And the one parent who’s ever cared about you and I, he’s up there right now. And you won’t even bring yourself to see him again.”
“You think he wants to take care of an old man? Some barely sane old man?”
“It’s not about him. You don’t want to find out that she isn’t with them. You know it’s a ludicrous fantasy, to think that somehow they found her and saved her from a narrow death. That somehow, by a miracle, she was able to repair the stasis for the Indomitable and stay alive within, waiting for the Fortuna to happen across the wreck of that ship and rescue her. For what? For you? To be reunited? You know it’s preposterous. You know it because I know it. She’s dead and once the Fortuna lands, that’s it.”
“Unless a pioneer ship finds her.”
“Some of those ships are four centuries away, only barely making a heading here once the Fortuna lands. And as we’ve been discussing of late, you don’t have much more time. Are you going to hide away in your stasis pod on the Defiant, waiting for each vessel to come in empty handed without Brena? Torturing yourself each time she doesn’t come off a ship until there aren’t any more out there. Don’t you understand? It’s all a fantasy.”
Scout got up and shouted, “Don’t you think that’s why I’m not going back to them? I can’t go back. Not like I am. Not after what they think of me. Better they think me a martyr than discover the lies. Lies created by an insane old man.”
There were no more words shared between Scout and his other self. They kept silent. Scout’s words carried into the wind across a people-less world with no one to hear. Yet he felt the familiar sting of embarrassment for having shouting out like that. It was happening more often. The clock was ticking.
Scout completed working on the Laika powered it up. The four legged drone whirred back to life, it’s simple green LCD screen lit up next to three camera lenses that made it appear half-dog and half-spider. It took three steps forward, backward, left, and right, testing it’s motor functions as the software rebooted. When it was finished Scout gave the drone a pat.
“It’s good to have you back.”
Scout directed the Laika to finish organizing the packed away inventory while he got some sleep. The new site still needed work. The blue journal lay next to his cot. He picked a good place, an elevated cave around the base of the continental mesa. The ore in the surrounding formations was dense enough to hide him from scanners and the terrain was rough. There was the risk of the next mesablast. Being so close to the mesa would cut Scout off from returning if he was caught trekking away from camp whenever another one came down. He’d have to be more prepared than before because next time, no matter what, if he was five minutes away he’d have no chance atreaching the shelter of camp. This hazard was one of the reasons he chose the site.
The area around the base was mostly water and swooping rock formations packed so densely they formed a maze of tunnels, some wide and others claustrophobic. The pink hued stone had been made smooth over millennia by the back-blast of the descending mesablasts. Scout compared it to images of Bryce Canyon and Coyote Buttes, a grand and alien amalgam of the two.
The bodies of water at the base were drinkable if treated and supplied nourishment for thickets of eggshell blue colored bacterial colonies- the tallest averaging four feet tall- that acted like a sort of reed, but fed off the rich sediments in the atmosphere more prevalent at the base of the mesas. They were harmless and when touched their slender straw structures would disintegrate into a fine powder-like substance that made a good iron supplement. If left alone they’d rebuild the stalk in a couple of days.
Scout stared at the wall for hours of the habitat, thinking of all the minor jobs he had left to do,all the little details that still required his attention. He did so until his eyelids shut like bunkerdoors and his dreams came to haunt him as before. Scout shifted around the cot for hours then sat up, eyes wide open but dead to everything except the fractal visions in his head. They darted around, trying to grasp the immaterial things in his dreams.
Scout sleepwalked out of the habitat, passing the Laika while doffing his clothes until he was nude. His jaw hung stupidly while he surveyed the horizon. He could see through both the dreamworld and the real world, a mountain, the largest in the region that Scout had the habit of calling “Mount Doom”. It was the largest volcano around but a dormant one. It would be for many years, but in his reverie Scout saw a halo of fire around it’s peak from which a beam of light ascended. The beam met with one star, then another, creating a webwork of connections that pulled together one massive constellation. A word. DEFIANT. A wheel came down over the mountain, spinning so fast it spread the fires of the mountain down across the valley until all was an inferno. The flames licked at Scout’s legs. He hollered and tried to put them out, but the fire was relentless.
Scout’s body, his real one, collapsed. The Laika, preprogrammed to care for him in case of duress, opened up its casualty canopy, lifted him up from the ground, and took him back into the habitat. It also politely recovered the articles of clothing he stripped. When the drone realized he would be okay it left him on the cot and went back to its other duties.
Exhausted by the work in relocating his camp, Scout slept for twelve hours. He got up, shook out the crick in his back, and got dressed. There were no memories of sleepwalking, but he recalled the dream. He went out and gazed out at the largest mountain jutting up from the landscape. Mount Doom. It was where he kept the Defiant. It had been two years since he went there. There was no fire coming from its summit or reaching across the valley, but he knew what it meant. The reason why he couldn’t go back to colonists on the Fortuna.
“It’s here by now,” he thought to himself. The other voice kept quiet.
In a daze, Scout packed up some supplies and set off for the mountain on the AT-PS. He followed the trail leading to the resting place of the aging ship besides a waterfall a third of the way up. Fat volcanic boulders hid the ship in a tight canyon cloaked by reddish lichen growths. The metal in the mountain itself would make it near impossible to ever notice the speck of the Defiant’s own. Scout stopped the vehicle and approached it. The diamond logo of the EHSE Pioneer Program was covered in dust. It looked sad in the sullen glow. Like a tomb. He wiped the dust from the ship’s name. Defiant.
Scout opened a panel on one of the struts, flipped on the breaker then pulled a lever. The ship’s reactor groaned with nuclear life, coursing power throughout its dry veins; a titan waking from its slumber. The dock platform under the vessel dropped down. Scout boarded and ascended into the Defiant’s storage and mechanics bay. Scout walked past the square indention of the storage compartment where he had stored the Comet, Kometa-1. It was covered by a white canvas tarp. He passed the airlock where he often contemplated suicide and the spot on the floor where he played the songs he learned on the island.There were ghosts everywhere. That’s why he rarely came. His head housed more than enough. Inviting in the Defiant’s would tear apart what scant sanity he had left in the tank.
However, not all the spirits of the past residing in the ship were ones stricken by grief. Not the one he was here for. The air tight hull of the ship kept everything in pristine condition. Scout sat at the head console waiting for it to cycle through its system checks.
“Are you there?”
There was no reply from his other voice.
“Of course not. You just tell me the things I know. I know it can all be a fantasy. That going back to the colonist, to EHSE, would only verify it, confirming that I am mad. I know the odds are nearly impossible that Brena was somehow rescued from the brink of death. I know these things. But even you can’t admit to yourself the truth about why we can’t go back. It has nothing to do with Brena, Lucca, the messages, or my sanity.”
Scout opened a file when the system checks were done.
“I know for certain that I left the Earth. That is real. Maybe not everything after, with years of sleep and losing my grip because of the isolation. Stellar pyschosis, that’s what Dr. Emma Sorensson called it in her research. She’s real too. And their messages, after I left, are real. Their praise. The first time they gave it.”
The file contained dozens of messages from the crew of the Fortuna as well as his fellow pioneers dated the day he launched. All of EHSE’s planning, the decades of work preparing to survive an unstoppable apocalyptic event, would have collapsed and humanity with it. EHSE’s mission was their one hope for survival and it was nearly snuffed out with the disastrous launches of the Unyielding,piloted by Alina Glukhovsky and the Indomitable, piloted by Brena Sahni. No one wanted to go after seeing the two best ships and pilots fail. Then Scout volunteered. He launched and survived. The rest chased after him.
One by one he went through the messages. Some were passed along from families. Each of Alina’s brothers thanked him for preventing the death of their sister from being in vain. There was even one from the Sahnis. He didn’t know which of them wrote it, but even they offered their gratitude. With one choice, one action, he went from pariah to hero. That was his greatest moment and why he needed to give Brena the credit for establishing EPD-333.565. Moonchild.They already respected him for his accomplishment, his fateful contribution to saving humanity, and he was indescribably grateful for it.
So he went dark, giving the Fortuna and the other pioneers the impression that he was dead, and fooling them into believing Brena was still alive, responsible for settling the planet and sharing her data- his data- with them. Everything they’d need to know about their knew home was given to them by Scout but Brena and the Indomitable took the credit. It should have been her victory after all.
He should have been bothered by reading them. He only received them because Brena failed and died. Alina as well. Two lives for a few dozen words of praise. Yet,he wasn’t stirred by his guilty pleasure. He had always been on the outside, either mocked or ignored, and for the first time people noticed him for something good. Not the brace for his curved spine after walking like a dog in the wilderness, for sleepwalking onto a families porch, or eating vermin like rats. They saw him as a worthy equal. At last he belonged. He was welcome. He knew he should feel guilty, but a selfish part of him needed it. So much so that he refused to give it up, and to do so he had to go along with his lie.
“You see I can’t go back. I had my moment. I ended things on a high note. They think I died a martyr and get to believe she finished her task. Everybody wins. As long as the lie lives on. It’s not just my fantasy. It’s theirs as well now. I have to keep it alive. If I go to them it all falls apart. We all lose. She died for nothing. And I’m no longer the hero they think I am. And that’s why they can’t know. They won’t believe in me. I rather die without seeing another human being than lose that. I rather go crazy. Their praise is real enough and you know as well as I do, that we can’t let it go.”
There was one more file, an audio file. Scout pressed PLAY and listened. It was a eulogy from Salman Ramanujan sent after the Defiant went dark. There was his trademark poetic language, mourning the death of a “true hero”. This, unlike the messages, could be imaginary. He had already been settled on the planet when it came in. But he chose to believe it was real in the same way he hoped Brena could still be alive. Plus he doubted he was clever enough to think up a eulogy in Salman’s words. Real or not, it made him feel validated. Having been starved of it, Scout devoured it gluttonously.
He downloaded the files onto the portable console on his forearm. There was no explanation for why he left them there in the first place. He simply forgot about them. Strange, considering how valuable they were to his self worth. He hadn’t really needed it. But with the Fortuna and everything else spinning out of control- like his body and mind- there was suddenly a need for it. He needed this ghost of the past. The rest could stay with the Defiant.
Scout exited the vessel and shut it back down. When he was halfway back to his campsite Scout stopped the AT-PS and gazed back at the mountain. It was an impressive sight, a big black shark tooth coming up from the crust of an alien world. Moonchild.
Scout turned westward and froze. At the top of a nearby dune, surrounded by motionless water, was a man. Unlike Scout, who was dressed in his tattered blue shirt and grey pants, this man wore a sharp black suit.
“It can’t be.”
He squinted. The man waved, slow and eerie. Was it him? Another part of the fantasy? Another inescapable ghost? Scout rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. The man was gone this time. The place where he stood was empty.
“No. It couldn’t have been him.”
“The time is ticking. The wheel is turning.”